Local Zen

Aside from a short jaunt to California to visit an old friend, we at Zen Travellers have been staying pretty local this year. In light of the sticker shock we experienced in the US after the Canadian dollar sunk, a wedding to plan, and bigger travel plans on the horizon, we’ve taken to trying to make the most out of our local surroundings. Luckily for us, Alberta and its environs deliver in spades.

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Zen Revisited

“I haven’t been everywhere but it’s on my list.” – Susan Sontag

Travel can lead to conflicting emotions and priorities. Consider the oft repeated Susan Sontag quote above and what it inspires. Most travellers know that it’s hard not to agree wholeheartedly with Sontag and want to keep exploring new places for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile they also know that it’s true that there is value in slowing down and savoring their surroundings in the present. That is the Zen way after all. But instead of being diametrically opposed, these conflicting priorities can be reconciled in order to achieve travel Zen.

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The Upside of Down: How we kept our Travel Zen in 2015

2015 was a year of highs and lows for us at Zen Travellers.

 We started the year off on a healthy note with a nordic sweat session on a beautifully frozen Lake Louise, then continued the trend with some skiing in Whistler and long walk along the sea wall in Vancouver. All the while also enjoying delicious and unique YVR eats and craft beer. Yin and yang friends.

The Zen Travellers Manifesto

The awesome folks over at BootsnAll Travel are hosting the 2015 Indie Travel Challenge to encourage travellers to think about what inspires them to roam and to share their learnings with others with the #DoYouIndie hashtag. By answering thought-provoking questions posed by BootsnAll, travellers are reflecting on and sharing why they travel, how they got started, and what there is to do in their hometowns. Today’s challenge is to come up with your top ten values for life and travel in order to create your own manifesto. Continue reading “The Zen Travellers Manifesto”

How to Get Your Zen Back After Being Sick While Travelling

Few things can harsh a traveller’s Zen more violently than getting sick on the road. It can be difficult just to get around and meet your needs in a strange place, but doing so when you’re sick is even more challenging.

To that end, my resolve was pushed to its limits when I came down with a mystery illness during a trip to Uganda. Having pushed myself physically with hikes in the Rwenzoris and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and whitewater kayaking on the Nile, I felt strong and in good shape for our 4 day climb up Mount Elgon, but an illness nearly flattened me.

Mount Elgon, as seen from Mbale. 

In order to start on our hike from our starting point at Bugugali Falls, we took a bota bota to Jinja and waited a few hours for a matatau to fill up so we could make it to Mbale and set up our trek. Once we finally made it to Mbale, we spoke with some people at the UWA office who informed us about the different route options and worked out logistics. As it happens, we were supposed to begin the trek from a small village called Budadiri, about an hour away from Mbale, so we would have to make it there the next day and leave for the hike the day after.

The guide books said that Mbale was the place to get outfitted for the trek, so we were a little confused that we had to add an extra stop. We loaded up on groceries at the market in Mbale, enjoyed some tasty Indian food at the New Mount Elgon View Hotel which makes a better restaurant than hotel, and got a good night’s sleep despite the hotel being sweltering hot and on a busy, noisy street.

The next morning we took a matatau to Budadiri where we stayed at Rose’s Last Chance guest house and made our arrangements with the UWA guide and porter. In hindsight, we could have just transferred straight to Budadari after arriving in Mbale and picked up provisions there since we mostly bought staple goods (ie: beans, potatoes, cassava). Mbale had better selection to be sure, especially for canned and processed goods, but stopping there delayed us starting our hike by a day and the fresh fare the cook ended up preparing for us was better than anything processed we bought.

Once everything was sorted in Budadiri it wasn’t even noon, so we decided to go for a walk around the village and had lunch at a busy local cafe. Afterwards, we checked out the village market and picked up some jack fruit and cassava chips to sample. As the vendor was cutting it, he pointed to the fruit and said to only eat a certain part of it. I thought I understood him, but perhaps I didn’t. Regardless, I didn’t fancy neither the jack fruit nor the cassava chips, so I only had one bite of each.

What could possibly go wrong with this?

Later that evening, Rose prepared a delicious feast of rice, beans and cabbage for us for dinner and we went to bed with our bellies full ready to start our hike in the morning.

As soon as I woke I could sense something was off, but still I put my hiking clothes on and tried to get ready despite my queasy stomach. It was all in vain because I soon became very sick and threw up a few times before lying back down, thinking maybe I could brush it off. Every time I lifted my head or stood up, I would have to be sick again and I couldn’t even keep water down. To make matters worse, I developed a fever so all I could do was lay in bed and sweat because if I moved I would be sick again. Rose eventually called a doctor who gave me a shot of aspirin to make my fever go down and said he would return in the evening. Once the fever medication kicked in, I felt a little better but still couldn’t eat or drink anything. I spent almost the entire day laying in bed trying to figure out what exactly made me sick. Philip had eaten all the same things as me and was fit as a fiddle but I was barely living. I blamed the jack fruit.

Pictured: POISON!!

Eventually the doctor came back after I had gone the whole day without eating or drinking and gave me another shot for the nausea and some unidentifiable pills to take over the next couple days. After all that, he charged me roughly $12 CAD for the medicine and 2 visits, which I handed over solemnly understanding that many Ugandans unfortunately wouldn’t be able to receive the same medical care I had just received in their own country.

After the nausea medicine kicked in, Rose brought me mango juice and made me a simple tomato soup which I was able to keep down. Feeling weary and tired, I went back to sleep and tried to muster the strength to start the trek the next morning. As much as I wanted to get on the trail and out of boring Budadiri, I couldn’t muster the strength that day either and took another day to rest. By then a lot of our food had gone rotten so we had to buy more which once again showed us that you can probably get all the food you need for the 4 day trek from Budadiri (ie: rice, beans, vegetables, fruit pasta) and our cook, Xavier even offered to do the shopping for us.

I did my best to walk around and keep my spirits up, but the mystery sickness had really drained me and I spent most of the day sleeping. I’m not sure what I would do different next time, other than not sample strange fruit from street vendors and bring more books since we burned through all of ours during our unexpected extended stay in a sleepy village at the base of a massive mountain.

In the end, the experience highlighted an important travel truth: that sometimes the only way to get your Zen back is to keep on keeping on.  Travel throws the unanticipated at even the most prepared travellers and all we can do is control how we react. In my case, that meant getting up on that third day and putting one foot in front of the other, slowly but surely, until I made it up that mountain. More on that journey in the next post!

Rain and Hindsight in the Rwenzoris

Even the most Zen of travellers knows that keeping your spirits up in bad weather can be challenging. Especially if you are cold and wet, physically tired, mentally exhausted, or experiencing any other common travel-related ailment. Yet more often than not there are hard-won views, memorable experiences or at the very least, an important lesson to learn to make continuing on worthwhile.

After an inspiring time in Murchison Falls National Park, Philip and I headed to the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda full of anticipation. To us, the Rwenzoris would be a welcome change of scenery from the Canadian Rockies, where we usually play, which are craggy and barren but only climb to just shy of 4000m. The Rwenzoris reach up to 5109m and the highest peaks are snowcapped year round even though they are in the equatorial zone. Since they are so close to the Equator, they are lush and tropical despite their sky high altitude, so we would be hiking through a rainforest at similar heights that would have us on a rocky summit back home.

We’re used to hiking in scenery like this. I know, hard life right?

After several hours of African massages in the back of our driver Bosco’s car, we arrived at our beautiful stopover at Ruboni Community Camp near Kasese in Uganda.

Thea inspects a flower on the way to the hut. 
Our hut at Ruboni

Ruboni is a community-based guesthouse right outside of Rwenzori Mountain National Park (RMNP).  From the camp you can do hill walks up the sides of the Portal peaks, cultural tours in the nearby villages and interpretive nature walks in the forest. There is also a restaurant at the top of the property that has a nice view, provided the clouds break long enough to notice.

After being showed our room, we dined on spaghetti in the restaurant while our driver worked out the details of the trek. For other parts of our trip, we had done a lot of the research and planning ourselves, so it was bit strange for us to leave it in someone else’s hands.

We should have clued into what we would encounter on the mountain when after dinner, the front desk clerk handed us each a hot water bottle to take back to our room. The night at Ruboni camp was a chilly one to say the least.

There is not a lot of information about the shorter hikes that can be done in RMNP, and our original booking to overnight in the Trekker’s Hostel and hike to “scenic vistas” was oversold so we planned on doing the new Mahoma Lake Loop 2 day hike. After a restful enough sleep at Ruboni, we headed up the mountain with our guide, cook and porter from Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS), organized by the otherwise stellar Amagara Tours.

There are two main trekking outfitters for RMNP, Rwenzori Trekking Services and RMS. We had read some horror stories about RMS on Trip Advisor, but put our trust in the very well-reviewed Amagara tours for a portion of our time in Uganda since our itinerary was pretty ambitious. Of our 11 days on the Amagara organized tour, these were the only days that left us less than impressed.

For starters, despite telling the RMS guide that we were more interested in animals, they sent us the plant guy who solicited a tip before we even left for the hike. We couldn’t hold it against him too much though, since he did find us the rare 3-horned Rwenzori chameleon within a few minutes of starting hiking.

This guy! He was probably the highlight of the trip, but he doesn’t know it. 

Our enthusiasm began to wane when we climbed and climbed steeply through dense forest with very little scenic vistas to speak of. In addition, our guide was more interested in impressing the female trainee that he brought along than helping us understand what we were trudging through and rain clouds seemed to threaten to foul things further.

Thick forest obscures any “scenic vistas” for most of your trek. 

It rained off and on as we snaked through dense forest, sometimes so thick the guide had to swipe at the branches with a machete. We eventually climbed to the camp at about 2:30 in the afternoon and not a moment too soon. Pretty much immediately after we arrived, the skies opened up and poured for hours. Our lovely cook Johnson prepared us a nice meal of veggie spaghetti, hot tea and cookies which we devoured gladly. Afterwards, Philip and I wondered what to do with the rest of the evening. The hut was cold, dark and wet and we sat at the kitchen table playing cards, huddling in our sleeping bags and wishing that we had brought more warm clothes to Uganda (or hot water bottles for that matter). Our boredom was interrupted only by a brief view of the Portal peaks when the clouds cleared for a moment.

A “good” view of the Portal peaks after climbing to 2651m. 

The next day we carried on being ignored by our guide while climbing up to 3500m to our destination, the “lake.” Mahoma Lake is really nothing more than a slough which you view from a narrow bank. This is one of the only occasions where the pictures do more than enough justice for a place.

Mahoma Lake at 3500. 

Elephants were seen on the trail the day before so a Ugandan Wildlife Authority ranger had joined us to escort us down. It was a good thing since he ended up being an amazing guide. While at Mahoma Lake, he pointed out a brief view of Mount Luigi so at last we actually set eyes on one of the Rwenzori mountains. Our RMS guide hadn’t even bothered to identify any of the peaks for us. The UWA ranger also informed us that we were hiking the hardest part of the “Central Circuit“, a multi-day trek that takes you to 6 huts on the mountain at various elevations. Knowing that we had already done the hardest part of a worthy challenge only made us want to finish the whole circuit, but we didn’t have the time.

Mount Luigi, 4626m.

Despite Bosco having told RMS that we had a very long day transfer ahead of us after the hike, we had a big trek out of the park. About 18km one way and lots of elevation gains and losses, to the effect of 900m gain and over 1000m loss. So in other words, a long, challenging day even for seasoned hikers like us, which was meant to be accomplished in half a day. We struggled to keep our spirits up and wondered why we couldn’t have done the trek in reverse in order to have a shorter second day. Meanwhile, our guide kept telling us to keep walking since it the trail was “gentle and rolling” to the end.

We trudged through lush green hills, bamboo forests, and dense rainforest until finally descending to the park gate without having ever really been rewarded with a great view, or a guide that cared enough to truly show us around. For how steep and long the hike was, we felt like we had worked really hard to achieve the same result as a short, interpretive nature walk in the Park would have offered us. Despite not being treated well by the guide, we also felt obliged to give a good tip since it would go to the him, the porter and the cook Johnson, who was fantastic, but we did not really like our overall experience with RMS.

We were rewarded with a little bit of sunshine during the long descent. 

The Rwenzoris demonstrated potential, but it seemed like they are best visited if you have ample time. In hindsight, since we weren’t able to commit to attempting a summit in RMNP like Mount Baker or complete the Central Circuit, we would probably opt for the nature walk or hill climb with the people from Ruboni. They were so kind and RMNP just does not deliver as much as an eager hiker might hope in a short amount of time.

Even our driver was mad about having to wait so long since it meant he had to drive in the dark along Uganda’s infamously scary roads to our next adventure: gorilla tracking in Bwindi National Park. Still, we could not say that we regretted going, only that we had wished that we had booked with Rwenzori Trekking Services and that we had more time to do a hike that may have been more rewarding.

At the very least, the trek was instrumental in getting us shape for the increasingly difficult adventures that we had planned ahead of us. In addition, we learned that even when relying on a tour company to organize a trip, it is worthwhile providing feedback to the organizer. We simply should have told Amagara to book our hike with RTS instead of the poorly-reviewed RMS. Amagara may have had their reasons for partnering with RMS, but at the end of the day, it was still our vacation, so we had the final say. Finally, the experience also endowed us with a tendency for healthy scepticism every time a Ugandan guide refers to something as “gentle and rolling” which would serve us well during our adventures to come.

Baboon Theft and Hippo Threats at Murchison Falls National Park

After a peaceful first day driving and animal watching in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, Philip and I were excited to explore the park both by boat and by foot.

We started the day with an early morning game drive and then headed toward the boat launch where we had crossed the river the day before. As we went to eat our packed lunch under a tree, our driver Bosco warned us to “watch out for the baboons!” How could baboons be so bad? We thought naively. 
Cute? Don’t be fooled. 
We had not been sitting on the bench under the tree more than a few minutes when a baboon descended on us fast. I spotted him out of the corner of my eye so I tucked the food back inside the bag and folded it over thinking that would stop him, while Philip held the rest of it up high. The baboon was smarter than my ruse and just grabbed the whole bag, taking the samosa that I really wanted to try. The pancake that was in the bag too fell on the ground so I snatched it back while Phil swung his leg at him in a last ditch attempt to not lose our lunch. His kick was in vain because the emboldened ape just reached back and grabbed the pancake too. He then perched himself in front of a tree opposite us, flung the plastic wrapper off in one swift movement and smugly enjoyed our lunch as we watched helplessly. 
We used to think baboons were kind of cool, now we thought they were jerks. The jerk baboon came around one more time until the locals finally showed us how to dispatch him by throwing rocks at his feet. We enjoyed what was left of our lunch in relative peace until I went to throw our garbage but the can was being guarded by our old world monkey nemesis. Bosco saw what was happening and took the garbage from me. “Let me throw it out,” he said, “they’re not afraid of white people.” Nevertheless, he armed himself with a stick for good measure and the baboon scrammed at the first sight of him.

Yeah you eat those leaves and leave my samosa alone. 
With the lunch hour unpleasantness behind us, we crossed the river to wait at a boat launch on the other side. Eventually, two boats arrived at the same time. One two-storey booze cruise type thing and one understated, dented aluminium beauty pulled up too. Ours was the latter. I climbed somewhat reluctantly into the small boat not entirely sure it could handle the trip to Murchison Falls, some of the most powerful falls in the world. Our skipper James reassured us that the boat called “Hippo” was safe and not to worry about the hippos in the water since “hippo + hippo = hippo”. Well that settles it, or does it?

From the boat we were able to get so close to the animals on the shore and were plenty impressed by drinking elephants, creeped out by basking crocs, and threatened by hippos.

Elephant comes down to the river to drink
Perspective shot as the boat pulled away. 
Creepy croc just hangs out on the bank with his mouth open. 
Hippo to humans: “Soon.”
The Nile boat cruise was an incredible way to do some wildlife watching and our excitement wasn’t over yet. Our captain steered us to the closest point where we could safely view the impressive Murchison Falls.

The water gets a little too turbulent after this to let our hippo boat go any farther. 

As our fun Nile River boating adventure came to an end, our Skipper dropped us off at the beginning of a short hike to the top of Murchison Falls. The hike is straightforward and not too strenuous so most people could enjoy it. It winds through lush forest and climbs up a cliff to various viewpoints along the river. After our game drive the day before, getting out to hike and move was most welcome and the views were very rewarding. 

A closer look at the Murchison Falls. 

The famous Murchison Falls is where the mighty Nile squeezes through a 7 meter gorge and then falls 43 meters below. The result is one of the most powerful waterfalls I have ever seen. Other falls may seem more majestic, but Murchison Falls is a worthy competitor in demonstrating moving water’s awesome power.

Thea, between two falls. 
Philip admires the falls from close to the top. 
From the top the mist from the falls floats up and provides welcome reprieve from Uganda’s daytime heat. Despite our exhaustion, the hike was the perfect way to cap off our second day in Murchison Falls National Park. While MFNP might not be the first destination that comes to mind when one thinks of game watching and hiking in East Africa, it proved to be a very worthwhile destination on all fronts. The park is quiet, teeming with animals and dedicated to conservation. A must see for any adventure-loving traveller. Just be sure to watch out for the baboons!